Dec. 11, 2016
By John Heisler
Mike Brey walked out into the chilly New Jersey sunshine late Saturday afternoon, headed for a few days on the recruiting trail while his players traveled back to campus for finals exams that begin Monday.
And the University of Notre Dame men’s basketball coach loves the messages he’ll be selling to recruits as much as he loves his team—Saturday’s final score against top-rated Villanova not withstanding.
Did Brey’s Irish miss out on a legitimate attempt to knock off the current No. 1-ranked team (Associated Press poll) for third time in five years (also Syracuse in January 2012 and North Carolina in February 2016) and the defending national champion for the eighth time in the Brey era in South Bend?
But don’t think Brey had any reason to shed a tear Saturday. His team put on an impressive show of shot-making, unselfishness and poise for a long time at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. The Irish had Villanova on the ropes early, leading 35-24 and forcing Wildcat coach Jay Wright to call a couple of first-half timeouts to stem the tide.
Wright has a pretty good basketball team on his hands as well. The Wildcats are now 10-0 and figure to retain the top ranking for a second straight week. And Josh Hart was the best player on the floor Saturday, with his 37 points and 11 rebounds dominating the conversation between fans on the New Jersey Transit trains headed home.
Still, Brey liked his own Garden State boys—senior Steve Vasturia and junior Matt Farrell, who both scored 18 points and gave the Irish a great chance to win until Villanova’s upsized second-half defense paved the way for a 74-66 victory.
The Irish (now 9-1) came into action Saturday rated 22nd and 23rd in the two polls—and if anything they played better than that against Wright’s crew.
“This is a big day for us because this is truly like a road atmosphere—they’ve got their band and their cheerleaders because they’re only two hours from here,” Brey told his team before the game.
“So our poise needs to be at another level. When they make a run or their crowd gets loud, it doesn’t make us play fast or get out of character. We haven’t been in this yet, so this is good for us.
“I’m going to talk to you about all their players, but keep in mind they’ve got to guard us, too. That’s going to be interesting. I am very excited to see if we can do what we do against these guys. Road atmosphere, so talk is even more important.”
Similarities between these two clubs?
“It’s like guarding ourselves every day,” noted Irish assistant coach Rod Balanis.
With former Irish star Kelly Tripucka (doing radio analysis) and former Notre Dame assistants Pete Gillen (doing television analysis of the second game between Pitt and Penn State) and Matt Kilcullen (in the stands) all looking on, the Irish began by doing everything Brey wanted to see.
Farrell knocked down his first three shots (two from past the line) and four minutes into the game the Irish were on a 7-0 run to lead 15-6. The Irish moved the ball, played unselfishly and assisted on 11 of 17 first-half baskets. Three straight hoops by Notre Dame made it 33-22 and prompted a Villanova timeout at 4:26. At that point, the Wildcats had not attempted a free throw. Wright’s unit twice cut the margin to three in the final minutes, but the Irish maintained a 41-36 lead at intermission.
“Great half, man. We’ve got to continue to keep moving and get great stuff,” said Brey to his players at halftime. Keep running, keep talking, keep moving, keep making them guard us—and I love our poise playing on the road. Let’s get off to a great start in the half just like we did in the game.”
At the break Farrell had a dozen points (hitting all five shots) and six assists, Vasturia had scored 10—while Hart had 19 points (six of nine field goals). The rest of the Villanova roster combined for eight of 21 shooting (one of seven on threes).
The Irish built their second-half lead to nine points at 50-41 on a Farrell basket with 13:13 remaining—but it got tougher from there. Villanova dialed up its defense, and Notre Dame--after only two first-half turnovers--had a half-dozen in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
Villanova took its first lead at 57-56 at 9:07 (after hitting six shots in a row), while Notre Dame’s final lead came at 62-61 on a Vasturia three with 6:32 to go.
The Irish play had the Wildcats and their crowd on their heels in the first half, but ‘Nova’s late run changed all that.
Farrell’s jump shot at 2:11 cut the Wildcats’ lead to 68-66, but the Irish missed their last four shots and ‘Nova knocked down six straight free throws in the final 56 seconds.
Notre Dame, used to making a living at the line, made all six of its free throws, but Villanova connected on 20 of 22, 15 of 17 in the second half and 14 straight overall by Hart.
No Villanova player other than Hart had more than eight points. Notre Dame finished with two more field goals than the Wildcats.
Wright’s team held Notre Dame to 10-of-25 shooting after the break (after the Irish were at .515 in the first 20 minutes) and its ability to defend better and get into the lane paved the way for the now-10-0 Big East squad.
The disappointment of a missed opportunity loomed immediately palpable in the postgame Irish locker room, but Brey wanted some perspective for his Irish:
“Tough luck. That’s a great measuring stick for us. They’re really good. Give them credit. But I loved our preparation for today. I loved a lot of the stuff we showed in a road atmosphere. I know for this group we’re not really happy with just playing a good team close—I get that. We all should be ticked about it.
“But I love our group. Villanova is kind of a finished product, but we still have room to grow. We’re still learning about ourselves and we’ve just got to keep that in mind as we go back to practice. We’re fearless and we know who we are. We live and we learn.
“I love how we get started—we get out of the gate. Give them credit—they guarded the heck out of us in the second half. I know we had some good looks that did not go down, and we’re going to keep shooting those.
“We came in here with a belief, an edge and a swagger—and now you’re mad that you didn’t get it done because you were good enough to get it done. So let’s let that drive us as we get ready for Purdue (next Saturday in Indianapolis).”
Brey made it clear he’d be proud as heck of his team and program when he walked into high school gyms these next few days.
Reality suggested that maybe, on this one afternoon in early December, the Irish just didn’t quite deserve it yet.
Yet they certainly impressed Wright.
“Farrell and Vasturia make the right play every time,” he said. “We didn’t do anything different with them in the second half. We just had to execute our game plan better.”
And Wright had to appreciate what the Irish did to his team early on.
“No one says that about them,” he said, referring to Notre Dame’s defense.
“They taught us a lot. We gutted out a win and didn’t play our best game—and that’s to Notre Dame’s credit.”
The Irish came up just short in this battle of unbeatens.
Brey knows full well, with Purdue next and Atlantic Coast Conference play exactly three weeks away, there will be plenty more opportunities.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler follows the Notre Dame sports scene for Fighting Irish Media.